This post is about my mother.
In October I visited her in an assisted living facility in Mobile, where she was recovering from encephalitis (which all the doctors thought would kill her) and a broken femur (which is supposed to do 92-year-old ladies in for good).
She was in a wheelchair and having all kinds of troubles, but she looked elegant in her beige jacket and ivory scarf and her white hair with, still, terrific body and wave. The first thing she said to me was \”Look at you! So young!\” And when my sister, who is sixteen years younger than I, came to pick me up hours later, our mother said, looking at us standing at the foot of her bed, \”What beauties! You look thirty at the most!\”
During the hours I spent with my mother in the next couple of days, she grew progressively vaguer and more tired, but was still vibrating with emotion, and I found myself forcing her to take naps like a recalcitrant child, so I could have a rest. Otherwise, she talked non-stop: about her mother and father, her sisters and brother, my father, his parents, my sister, my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren. And she recounted again how, toddling beside her on the way to my grandparents\’ barn, on a summer day long ago, I had asked \”When everything was nothing, what was everything like?\”
The very day I left she went back to the hospital, and then to a nursing home, chosen because it was run by nuns (who would give her spiritual sustenance) and had a homey atmosphere, with dogs and kittens running around, and a big aviary full of birds.
But my mother is indifferent to spiritual sustenance now, to nuns and dogs and cats and birds, and even to my sister. \”I\’m supposed to be the light of her life,\” my sister says, \”but when I walk in, hold her hand, pat her cheek, she stares right through me. She doesn\’t care that I\’m there. She has no affect.\”
No affect? Our mother was an affect professional, a virtuoso. Even in the throes of encephalitis last spring, when her five doctors said she wasn\’t going to make it, she had affect. Tons of it.
For better or worse, my sister and I had, from birth, been the recipients of our mother\’s torrential affect. We complained about it–\”Does everything have to be so earth-shaking?\” We devised strategies against it–\”Just agree with her. Don\’t engage. Say \’M\’hm, m\’hm.\’\” It made us crazy. But we always expected it
And now it\’s gone. So is everything else, except the ability to, very slowly, put food into her mouth…or into her juice glass. Otherwise, her body is inert. She cannot sit up or shift herself in bed. Still, she could go on–her heart beating, gut digesting, lungs pumping–for quite a while. She is her own life-support system.
But who is she? If she doesn\’t recognize the friends who visit. If she stares right through her own daughter. If she shows neither pleasure nor distress, who is she?
People say \”she\’s not herself anymore.\” But if so, who is that stirring cole slaw into the cranberry juice?
All of which brings me back to the old catechism questions. What makes a person a person? What is the soul, and does it depart only when the grosser body apparatus quits? Doesn\’t a soul need a mind to anchor it? And when a person\’s not a person, what is a person like?